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U.S. tuberculosis rate drops to record low

The number of new tuberculosis cases in the United States dropped last year to the lowest level since record-keeping began in the 1950s, federal officials said Monday.

It was the fourth straight year of decline, suggesting the nation is recovering from a rise in TB from the mid-'80s to 1992, the officials said.

"We're on the right track toward the elimination of tuberculosis in this country," said Dr. Ken Castro of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We now have the rare opportunity to eliminate tuberculosis in the United States."

However, he and others at a New York news conference cautioned against relaxing the fight against the disease, saying that's what made TB surge in the 1980s after a long decline.

Castro noted that 20 states and the District of Columbia showed no reduction or had increases from 1995 to 1996 and that sporadic outbreaks of drug-resistant TB continue to be reported.

Last year's nationwide count of new TB cases was 21,327, down nearly 7 percent from 1995. That's the fewest cases recorded by CDC since it started national surveillance in 1953. Over the same period, the total population has almost doubled.

Florida ranked 10th among states with 1,417 new cases in 1996, an 8.93 percent decrease from the previous year.

Officials credited programs that seek out people with infectious tuberculosis, diagnose them and make sure the patients take their full course of therapy. To be cured, a TB patient must take drugs for six months or longer, even after symptoms are gone.

The worldwide spread of TB has leveled off for the first time in decades, the World Health Organization announced last week.

WHO estimated that 2-billion people, or a third of the world's population, are infected with TB germs. About 10 percent eventually will become sick.